The sitting area in a two-room suite at Dar Saffarine, a restored 600-year-old residence that now operates as a guesthouse in the old walled city in Fez. Photographer: Bob Drogin/TNS
FEZ, MOROCCO: The sun was low over the souks, reflecting off the rust-coloured hills, and my wife and I were enjoying a rose-dappled sky from chairs on our rooftop. Suddenly, the call to evening prayer boomed from a nearby mosque.
Within seconds, dozens more muezzins echoed from other minarets, a wave of sound that washed over and around us.
It was an unmistakable reminder we were in the Fez medina, the cultural and religious centre of Morocco and, once, of much of the Muslim world.
We had arrived in Fez that day. A man had grabbed our bags from the taxi and led us at a half-run through the first gate, then another, over a small footbridge and deep into the labyrinth of 9,600 narrow lanes inside the ancient walled city.
Most have no names, but our guesthouse turned out to be three blind turns down a dark passage called Lane of Seven Twists.
Dar Seffarine, named for the nearby brass market, was an ideal oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle in the medina.
A dar is a traditional large Moroccan home, generally two floors around an open courtyard.
Our two-room suite was downright palatial. Past an arch with towering wooden doors, a multicolored riot of zellij lined the floor and part way up the walls.
Above that, intricate calligraphy and a sculpted frieze circled the room.
A man in a djellaba, a long, loose-fitting robe, ducks under one of the many archways in the ancient walled city of Fez. Photographer: Bob Drogin/TNS
Worn Berber carpets lay underfoot, and a magnificent inlaid cedar ceiling soared into a dome 20 feet high. Stained-glass windows near the top sent shafts of blue, red and yellow light bouncing around us.
We had no TV, no door locks and spotty Wi-Fi. That was the point.
A lavish breakfast was served family-style so guests could meet, and dinners were offered the same way.
We never had a moment’s concern during our four nights here, thanks to the solicitude of owners Alaa Said and his wife, Kate Kvalvik, enterprising Norwegians who have made their home here.
After a professor suggested Alaa Said specialize in Arabic architecture, he and Kate settled on Fez in 2003.
Alaa Said and his wife bought the dar — thought to be 600 years old, but no one is certain — and hired 80 craftsmen to restore it, plus add electricity, toilets and the rest.
It had been abandoned for decades, so it took three years — and tens of thousands of donkey loads — to make it livable.
It was a bold move.
The medina was an impoverished and forbidding place then, and their dar was only the third guest house in it.
There are about 200 today, thanks to a boom in tourism. Camel caravans once crossed the desert to bring sugar, salt and gold to Fez from Timbuktu and beyond. Now, Chinese tour groups arrive by bus.
But the medieval city remains a place of magic, especially in the early morning and after midafternoon, when the crowds thin.
For our first day, we hired an excellent guide, Khlafa El Asefar.
A woman walks down a gaily painted alley in the ancient walled city in Fez. Photographer: Bob Drogin/TNS
Asefar was immensely proud of how the medina had retained its roots and vibrant life. “We have 11 madrassas,” or Islamic schools, he told me. “Ten of them date back to the 14th century.”
For lunch, we ducked into the Nejjarine II, another lavishly restored dar.
Every inch seemed covered with glazed terracotta tile, carved cedar or stenciled brass.
Waiters swooped in with our mezzo — 15 separate plates of salads, olives, beets, lentils and the like.
We staggered out after a steaming tagine of lemon chicken and couscous, a flaky pastry filled with shredded pigeon and dusted with cinnamon, and heaping plates of fresh fruit and sweets.
It was clear that the tourist boom and a UNESCO designation as a World Heritage site have helped the medina reclaim some of its long-lost glory.
“This is a pure Islamic city,” he began. “They cover the women. And they cover the houses as well. It’s closed architecture. All the windows are to the inside. All the decoration is in the inside.”
The medina is home to about 150 mosques, and each anchors a communal bread oven, a public bathhouse and a fountain, the mainstays of Islamic life.
Behind them are the souks, or markets, and then the houses with their heavy doors.
“It’s urban planning by function,” Said explains. “It’s very organic, with the mosque as the tree, and everything growing from it.”
A man hawks dates and other dried fruits in one of the thousands of stalls in the souks of the ancient walled city in Fez. Photographer: Bob Drogin/TNS
The high walls along the narrow alleys create cooling shadows for the baking summer heat, and the intermittent reed or wooden roofs create a natural breeze, he said.
The lanes snake this way and that as protection from the direct sun and occasional sandstorms.
The houses are similarly designed for the desert — and for Islam.
During summer, families live on the lowest level, where the floors are marble and glazed tile and thus cool to the touch.
In the winter, they move to the cedar-lined and carpeted rooms above, which retain the heat.
Our room was up a steep, twisting staircase; halfway up was a passage to a hidden alcove with an iron grill, a place for a prospective bride to view her suitor down below.
“Fez is very rich in culture, because it collected art from around the Muslim world when it was the centre of that world.
The style of wood carving traces back to Egypt. The tiles are from ancient Rome and Persia. The flowers in the stucco are lotus blossoms from India. The calligraphy and the arches are from Iraq.”
Said is driven by that remarkable history, little understood or appreciated in the West. He said he isn’t finished with Dar Seffarine.
“This is a piece of art,” he said. “I’m not changing it. I’m just restoring it.”
Tribune News Service
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